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Page Contents: Introduction / Freud: The Royal Road / Other Ideas / The Dream Text / The Clinical Work / Some Helpful Points / Traumatic Nightmares / Incubus and Succubus / Other Troubling Dreams




IREAMS can be baffling and mysterious. Throughout history dreams have been associated with sacred revelation and prophecy. Moreover, it was a dream that revealed to a scientist the molecular structure of carbon atoms in the benzene ring.[1] All this mystery can leave us wondering what a particular dream means to the dreamer, and we can argue about what causes dreams in the first place.  

Yet, in spite of modern science, dreams still remain mysterious. Science can offer some explanation of how dreams are related to brain functioning, but only a psychological understanding of the unconscious can explain why a dream happens at a particular time of your life and what it all means psychologically.

Because I make dream interpretation a key part of my psychotherapeutic work, I’ll offer some comments here about this work.




Sigmund Freud once called dreams the “royal road to . . . the unconscious,” and I think that statement will remain true in psychology forever. Freud’s classic text, The Interpretation of Dreams, contains some of his finest work.

Sigmund Freud I won’t even try to summarize Freud’s work here, but I will point out that Freud believed every dream is a wish fulfillment, and he kept this theory to the end, even though he gave up his initial idea that all dreams have an underlying sexual content.

For Freud, the concept of wish fulfillment didn’t necessarily imply that a pleasure was sought, because a person could just as well have a wish to be punished. Nevertheless, this idea of a “secret” wish being masked by a dream remains central to classical Freudian psychoanalysis.




Of course, there are other ideas about dreams besides Freudian theories.

Some persons believe that dreams have certain fixed meanings. “If you dream about oranges, it means good health; if you dream about onions, it means hard work,” and so on. You can even buy “dictionaries” of dream interpretation.

Then there are modern scientists who claim that dreams are nothing more than images resulting from random electrical activity in the brain as it “housecleans” itself during the night.

And then there are those such as myself who accept the unconscious importance of dreams and yet see them as more than wish fulfillment; I find dreams to be valuable hints about how to improve our lives—and perhaps even keep us from foolish self-destruction.




To use dream material clinically—that is, in psychotherapy—it is important to realize that you never use the dream itself. That might sound strange, but think about it. When you tell someone about a dream, it’s impossible to depict the jumble of images that you perceived while you were sleeping. All you can do is put the dream into words in an imperfect attempt to describe what you experienced. So, in the end, to talk about the dream you really talk about the text of your perception of the dream.

The text, of course, is language, and, as such, it’s already a form of interpretation of the raw experience. So does it even matter if the images came to you because of random electrical activity in the brain or because of that greasy pizza you ate before going to bed? Your attempt to make sense of those images, wherever they came from, can still reveal something very important about your current psychological process.




The clinical work of dream interpretation, therefore, involves three things.

First, the dream story must be put into language. It’s best if you write down the details of the dream immediately after you wake up from the dream. But sometimes it’s possible to remember the story of a dream—or a dream fragment—even if you don’t write it down. Really important dreams will stay with you even if you try to forget them.

Second, you have to describe thoroughly and understand your psychological associations to the various dream images. These associations must come from your personal life, not from a “dictionary” of fixed meanings. Essentially, this amounts to asking, “When you think of this particular dream image, what other things come to mind?” Dreaming of Mrs. Smith from your childhood, for example, doesn’t necessarily “mean” anything, but what you thought about Mrs. Smith when you were a child—in essence, what her life, behaviors, and values suggested to you then—might have something to say about the problems you struggle with today.

Third, you have to discover the links between all these associations. This process is a bit like those “connect the dots” puzzles that reveal a hidden picture. Psychologically, you simply need to understand what this net of associations from the dream is telling you specifically, at this precise time of your life, about your current problems and conflicts. Quite often, these associations are purely emotional; that is, you can take a particularly graphic dream image, examine your emotional reactions to it, look back into your past for times when you felt the same emotions, and then ask yourself in what way those situations from the past have any bearing on what is happening in your life now.




Here are some helpful points about dream interpretation:

You don’t have to interpret your dreams in order to solve your problems. But just as there is the saying that “Death cures cigarette smoking,” you might find that listening to your dreams may help you solve your problems before you run out of time. Similarly, although dream analysis does not necessarily have to be a part of psychotherapy, your psychotherapy will be enhanced if you make the effort to interpret your dreams in the psychotherapy.

Dreams are always “true”—it’s just that what they mean isn’t always what we think they mean. Sometimes a dream gives a warning of danger, but if you pay attention to the dream and change your ways the danger won’t necessarily happen. And most often a dream’s meaning will be metaphorical, not literal. For example, a woman may dream that her husband is having a sexual affair, but it would be a mistake to conclude that her husband is really having an affair. The dream is simply providing the woman graphic evidence that she somehow feels betrayed by her husband. Once she acknowledges that feeling, she can then start examining her life consciously—and honestly—to find out why she feels betrayed and what she needs to do about it.

Dreams often mean the opposite of what they seem to mean. The technical, psychoanalytic explanation for this is complicated, but it has to do with the fact that we often see our own desires as they are reflected (and mirror-reversed) through others. For example, if you dream that you’re embarrassed for being in public without clothes, it likely means that you have an unconscious desire for some hidden aspect of your life to be shown to others in its “naked truth.”

Images of sexuality are rarely, if ever, expressions of “love.” To the body, sexuality is simply an aspect of the biological process of reproduction and therefore has nothing to do with what we commonly call love. Therefore, in the unconscious—and in dreams—sexual images and feelings do not signify a yearning for real love, but instead they signify a narcissistic need to “reproduce” feelings of being seen or of being noticed, as a way to compensate for the fear of being abandoned or ignored.

“But I don’t dream,” you might say. Well, that’s not exactly true. Scientific studies have shown that everyone ever studied dreams, and so it’s generally accepted that everyone dreams.


Sleep studies have shown that we go through several cycles of light to very deep sleep each night. One phase of each cycle is called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. Whenever a researcher woke up a sleeper in REM sleep and asked what was happening, the sleeper always said, “I was dreaming.” In fact, even animals experience REM sleep, so we surmise that they, too, dream—but we cannot communicate with them to find out anything about the nature of their dreams.


It’s easy to forget your dreams. In order to interpret your dreams you have to remember them, so forgetting them is a real problem. In fact, those who chronically forget their dreams tend to claim that they don’t dream. You will remember your dreams only if you wake up during, or just at the end of, a dream, but if you don’t wake up, or if you wake up just enough to turn over and fall asleep again, you’re not likely to remember a thing in the morning. To ensure that you remember a dream you can write it down as soon as you wake up from it; keep a note pad and a pen by your bed—and tell yourself, before you fall asleep, that you want to remember your dreams that night.

We have several dreams each night. Because we go through several cycles of REM sleep each night, we have many dreams each night, and at times you may be able to remember several of them each night. Sometimes, in the morning, as you review your notes of a dream from the previous night, you might remember other dreams that happened before or after the dream you transcribed.

Don’t worry about being unable to remember a seemingly important dream. If it’s really important the message will eventually get communicated in other ways or in other dreams.

Not every psychotherapist is skilled at, let alone trained in, dream interpretation. Freud, with good sense, suggested that, in order to work properly with the unconscious, a psychotherapist should be well-educated in literature, history, art, music, and religion, besides having specific psychological training. You have a right to ask about your psychotherapist’s training and education. If your psychotherapist is interested only in TV sit-coms, well, good luck.

All dreams essentially tell us one important thing: “Wake up!” That is, just as you must wake up from a dream to remember it, the dream itself is telling you to “wake up” to the truth that you try to hide from others—and from yourself.

Repetitive dreams indicate that you are continuing to miss the point about the meaning of the dream. If you don’t “wake up” to the unconscious meaning of the dream but instead persist in seeing it through your own wish-fulfillment needs, you will remain stuck in your own self-deception. The psychoanalytic concept of repetition can be difficult to understand; my web page Death—and the Seduction of Despair on this website provides more explanation. For help with resolving repetitive nightmares, see the explanation of the technique called Imagery Rehearsal Therapy immediately below.




Our modern word nightmare derives from the Middle English nihtmare (from niht, night, and mare, demon), an evil spirit believed to haunt and suffocate sleeping people. Therefore, in today’s world, when we speak of a nightmare we mean a frightening dream accompanied by a sensation of oppression and helplessness.

Moreover, the oppressive aspect of the nihtmare can give a good clue about nightmares in general, for in psychodynamic terms nightmares are graphic depictions of raw, primitive emotions such as aggression and rage that have not been incorporated into the conscious psyche. Thus we tend to encounter these “ugly” aspects of our unconscious lives as terrifying dream images in whose presence we feel completely helpless.

Nightmares are quite common in childhood because this is a time of our emotional development when we all have to come to terms with, well, raw, primitive emotions such as aggression and rage. Once these raw emotions become incorporated into the psyche through socialization and language, nightmares tend to dissipate naturally. 

Traumatic nightmares, however, can also occur as one of the many symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Repetitive, intrusive nightmares following a trauma often contain symbolic themes that mirror the original trauma and relate to threat to life, threat of abandonment or death, or loss of identity. Although exploration of these themes in psychotherapy can promote improved personal adjustment, the nightmares may continue to persist despite any symbolic interpretation.[2]

Therefore, traumatic nightmares need to be treated differently than other dreams. It’s not enough just to “know” intellectually the psychological reasons why you have these nightmares. An event is traumatic because it disrupts your previously secure—and illusory—sense of “self.” And so, to heal from a trauma, you must take the initiative to make conscious changes in your life to accommodate the traumatic shattering of your illusions about life and identity. 

Systematic desensitization, for example, as part of a multidimensional treatment for PTSD, may be of special help in reducing traumatic reenactment.[3] An even more effective way to “sow the seeds” of new ways of thinking and acting is Imagery Rehearsal Therapy.

Imagery Rehearsal Therapy

The raw emotions of repetitive, intrusive nightmares can be “tamed” by a simple, easily learned technique called Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT). If you have multiple recurring nightmares, select just one for the IRT process and use the process every night until the nightmare has been resolved; when that nightmare has been resolved, repeat the process for other nightmares.


Write out the text of the nightmare. Tell the story, no matter how frightening, in as much detail as you can remember.


Create a new ending for the nightmare story and write it out. Be careful, however, to make the new ending peaceful. Remember that the nightmare is grounded in emotions such as raw anger that have been provoked by a trauma. The point of a new ending is to “tame” the emotions, not merely vent them in violence and revenge.

A woman had been raped. She had a recurring nightmare of being pursued by a dark figure. In the nightmare, she ran and ran, and, each each time the nightmare recurred, she always woke up, sweating and gasping for breath, at the same point. So she decided, as a new ending, to stop running and confront the figure. In a subsequent dream, when the pursuing figure appeared, she turned to him and said, “Who are you and what do you want?” And here’s where her unconscious surprised her. The man replied, very politely, “You dropped this, and I have been trying to give it back to you.” He handed her a package. She asked what it was. “It’s your faith in human goodness,” he said. She woke up. And the nightmare never returned.


Rehearse the new version of the story in your imagination each night just before going to sleep. Do this as close as possible to your falling asleep without any other activity between the rehearsal and sleep.


Perform a relaxation exercise. Do this immediately after the rehearsal, as a way to fall asleep peacefully. You may use any technique with which you are familiar. If you need to learn a relaxation technique, try Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Or just use the Breathing Warm-up from the Autogenics Training if you need to get started as soon as possible and don’t have the time to learn something more complex.




Have you ever had the experience of waking up during the night because you feel a terrifying external presence around you, a mysterious eerie presence that feels like it is smothering and devouring you, and all the while you can’t move or protect yourself because your body feels completely paralyzed?

One component of a night terror such as this is called sleep paralysis; modern science attributes the physiological mechanism of such paralysis to a natural protective function of the brain which prevents the body from thrashing around during periods of sleep, called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, when dreams occur.

Nevertheless, a scientific explanation of sleep paralysis does not offer any insight into the symbolic meaning of such an experience. Why would a person “wake up” just at a moment of paralysis? Why should the experience feel smothering and terrifying? And sometimes the whole paralysis experience is all a dream in itself—so why would a person dream of waking up to a feeling of paralysis, helplessness, and terror?

In medieval folklore this experience was attributed to an incubus, a demon said to lie on and seduce sleeping women. A demon causing a corresponding experience for a man was called a succubus.

Now, a modern psychological explanation of these experiences begins with a close look at two meaningful words: smothering and seduction.

Let’s begin this examination by considering how every human infant, being completely helpless at birth, needs to be nursed and protected in order to survive. The infant needs to be enveloped, so to speak, in a mother’s love—and this whole experience can have the quality of an idyllic, intoxicating bliss. Nevertheless, every infant is destined to become an independently functioning adult, and to achieve this independence the growing child must be separated from the mother. So right here we have a fundamental tension: the bliss of envelopment in another, if it isn’t eventually stopped, can actually stifle and smother the attainment of independence.

As adults—especially if we have been forced into independence rather than initiated into it through proper parental guidance—we can feel a nostalgic yearning for the bliss of an infantile envelopment in a mother. And so we will create fantasies of being “enveloped” by another person. But because contemporary culture invariably confuses sexuality with love, these fantasies of envelopment become fantasies of sexual seduction.

Now here’s where things get psychologically complicated. Just as infantile envelopment in a mother can also be stifling and smothering, adult seduction has its own dark side of smothering. Sexual seduction, at its psychological core, really is a matter of manipulation by the desire of another. And when seen in its raw reality, manipulation is far from being blissful. In fact, it’s downright terrifying.


Imagine a place where there is no justice and no truth, only unbridled hedonism, a preoccupation with personal satisfaction even to the point of causing pain to others. Imagine being vulnerable to being seized and used by any other being who stumbles upon you. Scream all you want and no one will hear you because everyone else is screaming too. So you can’t really scream at all.
Hmmm . . . Mardi Gras in Rio? Well, not exactly. This horrifying place is the place of the demonic.


Therefore, when you unconsciously direct your life desire to being seduced, you enter the place of the demonic. At first it might seem exciting and intoxicating. But sooner or later, before you’re totally lost, your unconscious might wake you up to the sheer terror of the paralyzing danger in which you have placed yourself.

So, how do you fight off the demonic? You change your attitude. Turn away from the intoxicating abandonment to self-serving illusions of ecstasy and then learn how to sacrifice yourself in service to others through real love. It’s that simple.




Sometimes people complain of having disturbing dreams with unpleasant images, despite leading a seemingly peaceful waking life. And so they wonder, “What is my unconscious mind trying to tell me?”

There can be several reasons for such dreams.

First, the dreams could be unconscious advice. Maybe in some way you are betraying yourself, forgetting something, or not fulfilling a potential. For example, persons on the edge of a midlife career change may have dreams about being in school and searching for a missing classroom, or they may find themselves in a class about to take a final exam while realizing that they completely forgot to attend the class all year. Thus the feeling of panic in the dream points to the real feeling of panic in their current life about something being neglected or “forgotten.”

Second, the dreams could be an admonition, based in guilt. Imagine, for example, that you are embezzling the bank for which you work. Then you start having dreams about burglars breaking into your home. Well, the dreams are simply a depiction of something happening to you that is similar to the hurt or moral injury you are inflicting on someone else. This same dynamic often occurs in children’s nightmares: in waking life, children often experience angry feelings toward their parents and yet lack the cognitive capacity to express these feelings openly; so, in unconscious guilt, the anger becomes turned against themselves as threatening nightmare images.

Third, the dreams could be hints of a repressed trauma. As I say above, nightmares often accompany the emotional pain of a traumatic event experienced in adulthood. But if a trauma in childhood is repressed, dreams reflecting the emotional intensity of the trauma can persist throughout life—as a repetition compulsion—until the trauma is eventually brought to conscious awareness and healed.

Fourth, the dreams could be psychic premonitions. This is a rare phenomenon, but it does happen to some persons. In fact, it happened to me at least once. Nevertheless, my advice here is to ignore these dreams. After all, if they don’t provide sufficient details about when, where, and to whom the event will happen, so that the event might be prevented, then what good are such premonitions?


In the dream, which I still remembered vividly when I woke up, I saw several persons in a small river canyon playing in the shallow water and even sliding over a small waterfall. Suddenly a huge surge of water came down the river and carried everyone away with it. The next morning, at breakfast, a headline in a newspaper caught my attention. As I read the article, I must have stopped breathing. Several adventurers, on an excursion in the Swiss mountains to “body surf” in river rapids and waterfalls the previous day, had been killed when a sudden storm surge rushed down a canyon and swept them away.





Psychology from the Heart
The Spiritual Depth of Clinical Psychology

A collection of texts from the writings of
Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D.

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1. The scientist was Friedrich August Kekulé. The particular arrangement of the carbon atoms in the benzene ring, consisting of a ring of six atoms of carbon, had been a mystery until 1865 when Kekulé had a dream in which he saw a chain of carbon atoms rotating in a circle, like a snake chasing its own tail.
2. Orner, R. J., & Stolz, P. (2002). Making sense of repetition phenomena by integrating psychotraumatology and psychodynamic psychotherapy. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 15(6), 465–471.
3. Shalev, A. Y., Bonne, O., & Eth, S. (1996). Treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder: A review. Psychosomatic Medicine, 58, 165–182.

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Death—and the Seduction of Despair
Identity and Loneliness
Psychology and Psychiatry—and Psychoanalysis
Questions and Answers about Psychotherapy
Reasons to Consult a Psychologist
Types of Psychological Treatment
The Unconscious
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